Sunday, November 27, 2016



at Christ Church, Chelmsford

Back to back piano concertos, with Chelmsford-born Alisdair Hogarth as soloist with the ESO under Tom Hammond.
Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue top of the bill. Not really jazz, according to Hogarth before the concert, though the players did manage a convincing jazz sound, as well as the big orchestral palette, with a muscular soloist to match.
Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto – a repertoire favourite, and recorded by three generations of the Shostakovich clan – was given a similarly bold reading; the outer movements sometimes sounded more deliberate, less delightfully delicate, than usual, but the sublime slow movement, with its rich string tone and eloquent piano phrasing, was superbly done.
Ten years now since Malcolm Arnold left us. And this enterprising programme opened with A Flourish For Orchestra, commissioned in 1973 by the City of Bristol. Then the Third Symphony of 1957 – the same year as the Shostakovich. A much darker piece, a memorial to the composer's mother, impressively played by the ESO, led by Philippa Barton, with sweeping, brooding strings, ominous tympani rhythms, and fleeting solos from oboe, clarinet, piccolo and of course Arnold's own instrument, the trumpet.



Stock Drama Group at the Village Hall

The room – the “shrine” - is shrouded in dust sheets, the cast list in the programme is deliberately unhelpful.
This melodramatic thriller by Ira [Deathtrap] Levin has some clever, chilling twists, even if it lacks practical or psychological credibility. Like the later, better, piece, it has plays within plays … Not to mention timeslips and philosophical questions about the nature of reality.
Stock, directed by Peter Baker, give it a stylish outing, with a nicely furnished 1930s room and some believable 70s costumes. The lighting is atmospheric, although more dark corners would have helped the mysterious mood.
Sarah Kettlewell is the unfortunate young heroine at the heart of the increasingly nasty plot – a Cordelia at school, she is left alone to create the tension before the twist at the end of Act One, which she does very effectively; her litany of 1973 is another fine moment.
Greg Morgan – is he really a lawyer, is that toothbrush moustache really a fake ? - is her unlikely boyfriend, and a more sinister professional after the interval.
The resident staff – at the start at least – are excellently characterized throughout by Sylvia Lanz and Ian Stratford.

Maybe a little less shouting, a little more underplayed menace, would have strengthened the dramatic impact. And if the action is to be shifted from Boston MA to Oxfordshire, then more work needs to be done on the text: summer camp, goosebumps, the Depression all betray its true origins.

Friday, November 25, 2016


at the Playhouse, Salisbury

Alan Bennett looks increasingly like Betjeman's natural heir. And Hugh Whitemore's elegiac entertainment has more than one resonance: Edward Fox's rich voice – no more like Sir John's than his dapper linen-suited persona – is very like the patrician, academic tones that Bennett favours in pastiche. His “north of the Trent” town clerk, too, with “Bournemouth's looking up”. Not to mention the “grapefruit drying on the after-dinner speaking circuit. Both writers confess to a love of church-crawling, life on the film set, with its camaraderie and arcane jargon - “hair in the gate” …
Set in what could be a summer house, this 90 minute monologue is a shared delight; Fox's eyes are often screwed up in mirth, laughing, as Sir John did, immoderately at his own bons mots. And there are plenty of those, some new to me [the du Maurier limerick], some very familiar [Churchill on Tom Driberg's bride, a naughty Max Miller rhyme].
Names are casually dropped – pale green intellectuals and fin-de-siecle pederasts – Eliot, Auden, Blunt and Waugh, C S Lewis, Osbert Lancaster, Elizabeth Jane Howard. And of course there are the poems – Joan Hunter Dunn, Summoned by Bells, Dorset, Devonshire Street W1.
A disappointment to his father, Moth to Oscar's Bosie, delighting in old books - “through leaves” and London's Music Halls, [all but Wilton's, which he helped save from the wreckers, now vanished] – a “fascinating study to the world”.
Fox got a round on his entrance – life-time achievement applause, perhaps. But his affable, engaging performance certainly merited an ovation; this has been a long tour, but he appeared to be enjoying each anecdote and reminiscence afresh – a generous touch of genius on the Salisbury stage.

We used to picnic where the thrift
Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
In trembling sponges on the ledge
Below us, till the wind would lift
Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.
Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

There was a young lady named Gloria

Who was had by Sir Gerald Du Maurier,
        And then by six men,
        Sir Gerald again,
And the band at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Monday, November 21, 2016



Writtle Singers at All Saints' Church

The programming for this enterprising chamber choir has invariably been interesting and rewarding.
This concert, taking us from a damp Essex November to the heart of Spain, was affecting too, reminding us of a time when the church's rites alone held the keys to heaven, and pilgrimage was an obligation to which all aspired.
Luis de Victoria's Officium Defunctorum, based on the plainchant of the requiem mass, was given an atmospheric performance in the consecrated darkness of the church, the polyphony subtly underpinned by the cello of Alastair Morgan. The central Sanctus was especially moving.
The Singers, directed by Christine Gwynn, were joined by the cellist, and by Chris Brice and Nathan Gregory on a variety of bells, for Gabriel Jackson's To The Field Of Stars, commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of Victoria's death in 2011. Challenging for the choir, it blends ancient pilgrim hymns with settings of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson – Miracles and Our Journey Has Advanced – as well as a prayer for travelling, a history lesson [spoken by bass Andrew Taylor] a murmured evocation of the stars, and at the last a glimpse of the glorious Basilica of Santiago, using an elaboration of the motet O Quam Gloriosum which opened the concert. 

An intriguing poetic reflection on pilgrimage and life's journeys, its elusive melodies and rich harmonies beautifully handled by the choir. Especially magical, suspending time for a moment, was the whispered litany of star names, decorated with tinkling bells and high cello melodies in a luminous evocation of Compostela, the Field of Stars.

Our journey had advanced —
Our feet were almost come
To that odd Fork in Being's Road —
Eternity — by Term —

Our pace took sudden awe —
Our feet — reluctant — led —
Before — were Cities — but Between —
The Forest of the Dead —

Retreat — was out of Hope —
Behind — a Sealed Route —
Eternity's White Flag — Before —
And God — at every Gate —

Emily Dickinson

pilgrim path photograph by Bishop Stephen Cotterell, who recently completed the Camino - his blog here



Waltham Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Impressive music-making in the Cathedral. The massed ranks of the Waltham Singers, directed by Andrew Fardell, joined by the St Paul's Sinfonia and two outstanding string players.
Mostly Mozart, but Haydn to begin: the dramatic motet Insanae et Vanae Curae, one of his most popular choral works. A piece of two halves, with the urgent string passages setting the mood of fear and dread, underlined by brass and drums, before the calmer, more lyrical Quid prodest section. The voices conveyed the trepidation and the meditation in a beautifully controlled performance.

Mozart's C Minor Mass had its monumental moments, too – the closing pages of the Gloria, for instance – but precisely delivered pianissimo passages were equally powerful, from the opening Kyrie on. The soloist here was soprano Laurie Ashworth, whose contributions, notably the wonderful Et Incarnatus Est, were magnificently musical. The choir too were generally on excellent form, the diminuendo in the Sins of the World typical of their disciplined attention to detail.
Between these pillars of the sacred choral repertoire, the orchestra was joined by Julian Leaper and Martin Outram [both of the Maggini Quartet] for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. A constant delight, with lyrical phrasing and impassioned dialogue between violin and viola. The emotional Andante was taken at a tempo which allowed the music to breathe, without losing its impetus, before the energetic Contradanza brought the work to a sunny conclusion.



Springers at the Cramphorn Theatre


Could have been another Billy Elliott, or Stepping Out. But Broadway got there first, and smelted Sheffield into Buffalo [in the Danish version they're brewery workers from Copenhagen!].
This is Springers' second Full Monty, and it features some of the same members we saw seven years ago.
The Cramphorn stage is simply dressed with tall white screens – the suicide motor the only projection, I think – with piano to the left, restroom to the right, and Ian Myers' band firmly out of sight.
Confident, compelling performances from Peter Spilling and Simon Brett as Jerry and Dave, the odd couple at the centre of the sentimental tale. Joining them as Hot Metal in the pitiless spotlight at Toni Giordano's are Dominic Light's sensitively played mother's boy Malcolm, Jason Norton's amusingly uptight Harold, Julian Harris's mischievous Horse and Bradley Cole's quietly determined Ethan.
Strong support from Sara Mortimer as Harold's materialistic other half, Sophie Lines as Dave's loyal wife, and Helen Arber as Jerry's acid-tongued ex. The seen-it-all piano player – hip flask and Marlboros – is nicely suggested by Natalie Schultz.
Nathan, Jerry's tug-of-love son, is given a relaxed, realistic performance by Mattie Scott.
The score is far from memorable – Let It Go the one exception – but the numbers are engagingly staged [choreography by Kieran Young]and all unplugged: the a cappella Scrap, the witty Man duet, and the touching You Rule My World.
A sell-out success for Springers, directed, as in 2009, by Andrew Shepherd. So, despite not being “young, pretty or any good” will they bare their tattoos again in 2023 ? Book now …


Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Palace Theatre Westcliff

An unabashed juke-box musical, showcasing the greatest glam metal merchants of the 80s. Though not, as it turned out, the title number from Def Leppard.
And it brought a diverse crowd to the Palace to have their faces melted at the tea-time matinée: rockers, pensioners, school-kids enthusiastically supporting their mates.
The balance between tribute, parody, humour and love-interest is a delicate one, but SODS serve up their usual very professional production values, and give this slight story a more than decent outing.
The eighties hits are strung out on a thin line of plot. The usual things – dreams of stardom, threat from heartless developers, a naïve girl torn between fame and true love. Taking us back to sexier times ? Well, more sexist, certainly …
The show is driven by the music, excellently done by the on-stage “Arsenal”, with new MD Keeley Wickham on keys. The nature of the unsubtle eighties sound means that dialogue sometimes has to be shouted over the underscore, and the lyrics are occasionally hard to catch. The numbers, or at least the titles, are loosely tied to the narrative, and the colourful chorus sometimes seems to comment on events. There's little conventional choreography [Vicky Wyatt] – the two finales come closest, with ironic jazz hands at the end of Act One – Whitesnake's Here I Go Again. Many of the numbers are given a dramatic twist; all of them are compellingly performed. A trio, later joined by Stacee and the girls, for Styx's Too Much Time On My Hands, a duet for Damn Yankees' High Enough amongst the highlights.
The versatile, talented company take the rock genre in their stride, led by David Watkins and Milli-Mae Cage as the love interest, brought together by a shared taste for slurpees.
Plenty of broad-brush character work from, amongst others, director Ian Gilbert as the villainous Hertz, Ewan Dunlop as his OTT effete offspring, Les Cannon as the club owner, enjoying an Oscar moment – one of the few real speeches in the show – and elevation to the angelic choir at the end. He was also the voice of Ozzy Osbourne before curtain-up.
The preening rock star Jaxx, skin-tight leggings to attract the groupies, is played with evident relish by Nick Bright, and Heather Cooper brings strength of character and a fine voice to city planner turned protest leader Regina. A subtler, but no less effective performance, with no histrionics, from Phie Carlile as Justice Charlier, proprietor of the Venus Club strip joint.
The show is held together by the sound guy/MC/narrator/dramatic conjuror Lonny, brilliantly done by Jonny Buxton in a mullet, guying the genre, working the audience, interfering and generally being annoying, though not as annoying as Russell Brand.
The staging is simple – cut-away wall, the band upstage, the Bourbon Club. An ingenious fold-out platform brings us the men's bathroom, the planner's office …
Not the best of the juke-box musicals, but hard to imagine it better done on the non-professional stage, a good night out for rock aficionados and musical theatre fans alike.

Friday, November 18, 2016



Hutton Players at Brentwood Theatre


A quintessential English farce: coincidences and cross-purposes, mistaken identities and vicars with no trousers. And very much a period piece, though when it was written it was contemporary, the victory bells still some months in the future.
It's given an affectionately polished production by William Wells for Hutton Players. His large cast work hard to keep up the pace and capture the sublime silliness of the plot. All in a spacious, beautifully designed set with french windows, fireplace and the suggestion of a solid flight of stairs.
Four dog-collars and a pectoral cross amongst the dramatis personae: Roy Hobson is very funny as the kosher clergyman – archetype of a kind of vicar long since extinct. James Biddle the visiting preacher amusingly bemused by the chaos in the vicarage. The “also-ran” Hun on the run is Lewis Symes, and the “cheery old soul” the Bishop of Lax is played by Gavin Leary – a nicely timed performance, though a little more gravitas and a good pair of gaiters might have helped. Law and order is represented by Ed Harvey's sardonic sergeant.
Survivors of a tour of Private Lives are “a caution” in trousers, actress and bishop's niece, now the vicar's unruly wife, confidently played by Laura Fava, and, Elyot to her Amanda, Gary Ball's Clive, witty and hysterical – a fine physical performance. Ida the maid, struggling to bring sanity and order to the vicarage, is given an endearingly authentic characterization by Eleanor Burgess.
Many of these are classic figures of farce, a wonderful gift to the actor. None more so than the frustrated spinster of this parish, played in this case by Lindsey Crutchett in an outstanding tour-de-force. She doesn't miss a single trick; every moment is milked for laughs: losing control of her legs, sliding down the wall, snoring, hitting the cooking sherry … She looks the part too – sensible shoes of the right vintage, stocking seams, tweed two-piece.
Not all the accents were echt period RP, not all the laughs were perfectly timed. But even on opening night we enjoyed a truly hilarious two hours traffic of the stage: the Harvest Capers, the funny walks, and, at the end, the plot re-capped in impressively slick cross-talk.

Sunday, November 13, 2016



Kytes Theatre Group at Brentwood Theatre


Pam Gems' dramatic biography of the great chanteuse is not a perfect play. Husbands, lovers, protégés go by in a flash, in a confusing sequence of disjointed scenes. In 1978, when many more people remembered The Little Sparrow and her remarkable story, the central performance [by Jane Lapotaire] was widely thought to be much better than the writing.
The same could well be said of this welcome Brentwood revival, directed for Kytes by Graham Poulteney. It is memorable chiefly for the outstanding performance of Tori Till in the title role. Sassy, crude, but vulnerable in her trademark black dress, she held the stage, especially in those moments in the spotlight, recreating the distinctive songs that made her famous. And that unique voice, easily heard over the traffic and the cutlery.
The tone, the timbre were uncannily accurate – a real frisson when a word - “bat”, or “sonne” say – absolutely hit the nostalgia spot. The acoustic Heaven Have Mercy, with live accompaniment on guitar, was touchingly done, and her No Regrets final number had huge emotional power, bringing fans to their feet as it did over half a century ago. And the final scenes, her tragic decline and her deluded determination, were movingly played.
She was well supported by Romy Brooks as her old mucker Toine, their love-hate relationship nicely suggested. Good work too from Wade Owojori in a multitude of roles, including the boxer Cerdan and the singer Montand, and from Gareth Locke as Little Louie and many others. The duologue between Leplée [Bob Thomson] and Coquatrix [Paul Sparrowham] in Act Two was convincingly done.
But this was a disappointingly flawed production. Forgivable perhaps on opening night were some hastily curtailed sound and light cues. None of Piaf's co-stars sang in French on stage. The odd cliché might be excusable too: bicycle, striped tee-shirt, baguette – only the onions missing. And no-one expected faultless French, although a stricter dialogue coach might have eliminated the worst howlers. The announcer, for example, had little to do other than to say, quite frequently, “Mesdames et Messieurs” … ironically the same actor was the American MC who couldn't get Edith's name right. And I don't think Aznavour was ever called Charlotte.
More surprisingly, Piaf was allowed [encouraged? directed?] to use a cod French accent throughout, which made it much more difficult to suggest her roots in the gutter and her emotional depths. Rather like asking Helen Mirren to play the Queen in a plastic mask. Bizarrely, not all the actors ventured down this “Allo Allo” avenue.
But good to be reminded so persuasively of the songs, and of La Môme's eventful life, though I would guess it might be hard to follow without at least some knowledge of her career and the colourful characters who briefly shared it with her.

Thursday, November 10, 2016



CYGAMS at the Civic Theatre


Lost count of the number of Oliver!s I've seen. From the old New Theatre to countless amateur companies and schools. But Bart's songs and Dickens' story keep us coming back for more.
This is the fourth staging of the piece by Young Gen. Sallie Warrington's production is bold and colourful, set against a nice perspective London décor, misty and evocatively lit, with only a hint of panto.
And of course she has a large cast of talented youngsters to work with – from the tiniest orphan to the chubby hubby Bumble [Edward Bonney]. In the title role [shared on other nights with Gene Gardner] Tommy Edwards is a melancholy Oliver, begging for more from the Beadle on high, and making a fine coffin follower. He handles his songs well, both solo and ensemble. Jack Toland's Fagin has an unusually impressive singing voice too, while Matthew Barnes brings a strong stillness to the evil Sykes.
Hope Davies gives a moving performance as Nancy, building her Act Two solo dramatically, floored by Sykes and rising defiantly as the music swells. Bryan Cass the Musical Director.
A likeable Dodger from Charlie Toland, a lovely Widow Corney from Amy Hollingsworth with a “beguiling smile”, and amongst the supporting roles, a 24-carat cameo from Paul French as the oleaginous Sowerberry.

Some words are lost, some chances missed, and occasionally the vital spark seems lacking. But there were plenty of great moments – the chimney sweeps, Oliver's lesson in light-fingered thieving, with the gang surrounding him, his little bed amidst the Cries of London, the chorus work in Be Back Soon, It's A Fine life, led by Nancy and Izzy Churches' Bet, and the show-girls in Oom Pah Pah, the mood suddenly changing as Sykes is heard off stage.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016



Fol Espoir at the Cramphorn Theatre

It all started in 1942 with a little booklet. Re-issued by the Bodleian as a historical novelty, and now recycled by Fol Espoir as the unlikeliest comedy hit, directed by John Walton, who shares the writing credits with the performers.
The three clever chaps known as The Real McGuffins are touring round the country, visiting those same village halls that saw GI s and airmen wowing the local girls three-quarters of a century ago.
We walk in to the strains of Geraldo on the gramophone – If I Only Had Wings – before being addressed by Eugene F Schulz of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. 
In role as a roomful of rookies, we're upbraided for running amok, and given answers to our personal queries. Alas, the famous – and surprisingly absorbent – information leaflet has been seconded to latrine duty, so Gene and his Colonel have to improvise, with the reluctant aid of the very British Major Randolph Gibbons.
The special relationship is tested to destruction in a wonderfully hilarious, deliciously surreal series of sketches, skits and lectures – social class, currency, cricket, small talk and stiff upper lip. It's sharp, fast-paced, and painfully accurate.
Dan March is the Colonel, growling and glaring at his men; he's also the twittish Lord Tollemache, blending cricket and baseball in Act Two. Jim Millard plays Schulz, whose days on the Great White Way help him impersonate Isobel [Mrs Gibbons - think Celia Johnson] as well as Randy's formidable Scottish mother. The Major himself, nervous, easily offended, the epitome of an uptight Brit, is Matt Sheahan.
And I haven't mentioned the Nazi Spy School, the trial by tea trolley, and the glorious Morris Dance finale, when we all find ourselves on our feet doing the Dowager's Hey to Glenn Miller and waving our white hankies as we twirl.
But it's not long before the old animosities re-surface, and the curtain falls on a slo-mo punch-up backed by Winnie's words - ” fraternal association … growing friendship … mutual understanding”...

backstage selfie at the Cramphorn

Tuesday, November 08, 2016


National Theatre at the Olivier

Back in the Olivier to see the eagerly awaited revival of Peter Shaffer's classic Amadeus.
Only a couple of rows from the front of the circle, where I still remember sitting entranced in 1979 as I watched Schofield create the role of Salieri, ironically bringing notoriety to a composer who feared, rightly, that his memory would be eclipsed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Michael Longhurst's production is very different, of course. One of its great strengths is the 20-strong South Bank Sinfonia, embedded in the action. They set up at the beginning, and at the end, coats on, instruments in cases, they take a call with the actors. The venticelli are literally winds, carrying their instruments as they bring gossip and comment on the action.
Their modern dress is not the only anachronism – Salieri's sweetmeats look like donuts, and Mozart sports stylish DMs.
He's played by Adam Gillen as a strident, charmless child, accentuating the gulf his rival sees between the sublime and the disgusting prodigy. The “dreadful girl”, his Constanze, is given the full TOWIE treatment by Karia Crome.
Gillen's caricatured shoutiness is occasionally contagious, with screeching and yelling where cold crispness might be more effective.
Antonio Salieri, seeking advancement and fame, bargaining with his God, scheming to thwart the upstart Mozart, is powerfully played by Lucian Msamati. He has a strong rapport with the audience, his ghosts of the future.
The Olivier stage, bustling with life at the court, on the streets, in library and salon, is excellently used, with hangings, two levels, a cloth for the Prater and a pit for the players, who are imaginatively used – a walking glockenspiel especially effective. The music is often played straight, but there are twists, too: hooked-on bass-heavy serenade for the party, smooth jazz for a seduction.
Among the many impressive moments, amusing stagings of Seraglio and Zauberflote, and a stunning climax in which Salieri is crushed by the force of the Kyrie, and he clutches vainly at the Mozart manuscripts on the floor around him.
production photograph: Marc Brenner